As Esaya happily escorted me to my parked car in the underground garage of Hyatt Regency’s downtown Atlanta hotel to store my bags, I noticed his English was tinted with an accent. So I asked him where he was from, explaining that it did not sound as if English was his first language. He replied, “Ethiopia”.
“How long have you been in the US”? I asked. “Four years”, was his reply.
I told him that he had very good English for having been here such a short time; that I volunteer taught English as a second language, and had students who were here twice as long as him who couldn’t speak nearly as well. He thanked me, explaining that English is taught in school in Ethiopia. I concluded our business with a tip, one that I hoped was large enough to meaningfully render my thanks, but not so large as to be insulting. I never know how much to tip porters, bellhops and valets.
It was Friday morning (September 13, 2013). I had accompanied the wife to Atlanta the evening before, arriving in time to get a bit of dinner and then hit the sack. She was making the trip for a job fair in which she was participating as part of her duties as a human resources manager for one of those vaunted banks that may never be allowed to die. My pet name for her occupation is “The Human Resources Angel of Employment Death”, which of course, doesn’t capture the full range of her duties, as she also breathes life into careers, (e.g., her participation in this job fair), only later to kill them. I came along as her driver and porter. She didn’t tip me.
As the Georgia State University job fair was scheduled from nine to one Friday morning/early afternoon, I found myself with a little free time on my hands. Atlanta is a big city, the capitol of the Southern US these days, if it can be imagined that there is place such as the Southern US that is distinct in anything other than geography. All the literature in the hotel touted the city’s Southern hospitality, but I’ve never seen anything of Atlanta that would lead me to suspect the city was anything other than just another big metropolis cobbled together after the age of the interstate, its skyscrapers and density clusters spread over the landscape like so many weeds in a fallow pasture. It could be in California, or Iowa, or Utah. Nobody sits around on the front porch sipping lemonade or sweet ice tea, waving to the neighbors as they walk by.
But still, I figured killing four hours in a city as big and vibrant and energetic as Atlanta would be a piece of cake. And what better thing to do in a crowded city than simply strike out on a hike along its crowded streets and sidewalks? I mean, sure, the city is spread all over the place. Driving into the city from the west along I-20, it looks as if the skyscrapers are sun-loving weeds, sprouting and growing best where they don’t suffer in the shadow of others. But I was in downtown, the one area sporting a cluster of big-city skyscrapers, a part of town that had something like a miniature Chicago or New York skyline, if you squinted real hard. It proved to be a bit of an adventure.
The city streets and sidewalks weren’t vibrant and alive. Not this Friday morning, a reasonably tolerable September day. It was as if all the people in the giant buildings had died or been sequestered inside. Past the Westin, the Georgia Pacific building, the Southern Company building–a few of the more memorable landmarks among countless others, the only people in the streets seemed to be people who lived in the streets. It was eerie.
I felt a bit uneasy, and I’m almost never squeamish in dangerous neighborhoods. I’ll go down to the projects in Birmingham, or even the ‘hood in the West End area of the city, without a second thought. I know how to deal with things down there. It’s dangerous, to be sure, but if you go about your business like you belong there, avoiding eye contact as you keep your perimeter and rear in peripheral view, everything will be okay. It felt different in Atlanta. The slinking figures of homeless black men (and almost everyone I saw on the downtown Atlanta streets that day was black) darting in and out of the shadows of the towering odes to wealth and opulence made for an unsettling juxtaposition. What, exactly, was going on here? None of the street people I saw appeared to be outwardly suffering from mental disease or defect; most appeared to be quite healthy and hale—several were cruising around without shirts, flaunting their muscular, amply-tattooed physiques. They looked more like gangstas than homeless people, and while the homeless love to find concentrations of wealth in order to maximize their chances at retrieving the crumbs flaking off society’s upper crust, gangstas generally keep to the ‘hoods. The incongruity left me a bit unsettled, looking over my shoulder to see who might be following me, crossing to the other side the street when one of them actually seemed to be.
I presented an easy mark. I was wearing shorts and a button-up short sleeve shirt with the tail hanging out. I had on wayfarer sunglasses and Sperry topsiders. It was obvious that I wasn’t in Atlanta for work. But the city, except when hosting a major sporting event perhaps, is all about “bidness” as they used to say before it lost its Southern charm. Downtown Atlanta has no place for a tourist on a regular old Friday morning. So I eased out of downtown proper, and walked down to the Atlanta Aquarium and the Centennial Olympic Park, where tourists are more likely to hang. Things there were a bit busier and less ominous. But on virtually every bench in the park sat a black man, most of them roughly middle aged, just whiling away the time. Doesn’t anyone in this town, famous for its devotion to business, have a job?
That set me to wondering. Why have all these otherwise able-bodied black men given up on the working world? I thought about my earlier encounter with Esaya, who, like practically all the help at the Hyatt Regency, was black, not African-American, but an actual African. It wasn’t for discrimination according to the color of one’s skin that these guys didn’t have jobs.
It must have been something else. For some reason, these guys had decided that the cost of work outweighed its benefits, unless you fancy the idea, gaining favor among critics of economic theory, that the fundamental assumption of micro-economics, i.e., rationality in human beings, is flawed. I don’t ascribe to the notion that human beings are irrational; that they don’t evaluate alternatives according to a cost-benefit analysis. Critics of the assumption don’t get that rationality is, like Einsteinian physics, a matter of relativity (excepting the speed of light, which is the same for all observers). It is a subjective inquiry that is only valid when undertaken from the point of view of the actor whose rationality is questioned. So it had to be that somehow or the other the guys on the park benches believed their welfare, as they saw it, was enhanced the most, or suffered the least, by not holding a job, while the Ethiopians at the Hyatt Regency believed just the opposite (I later found out from talking with a lady working at the coffee shop in the hotel, who was also Ethiopian, that a great number of the Hyatt’s staff, not just Esaya, was from Ethiopia. She, of course, knew Esaya.)
It’s not hard to see how working at any job in the US is better for the average Ethiopian than staying in Ethiopia. According to the CIA World Fact Book, Ethiopia has some 93 million people living in a country about twice the size of Texas with a per capita income of about $1,200. Even with the enormous cost of traveling several thousand miles to a foreign land, and working in a situation that amounts to indentured servitude, the Ethiopians seemed to relish their jobs (though I don’t know exactly what was the immigration status of the Ethiopians, as making such an inquiry would surely be considered rude and inconsiderate, even if only for curiosity, it is in regards to their being subject to US immigration law and policy that I describe their employment condition as akin to indentured servitude—more on that later). But the native born Americans weren’t interested (assuming, I think plausibly, that most of the guys I saw in the park and on the streets were US citizens). I thought to myself that whatever is driving an Ethiopian to America for a job that requires no particular skills, while right outside his place of employment are abundant able-bodied natives who aren’t employed—that therein lies the answer to the employment quandary of the Great Recession, where even as the economy feebly grows, the labor participation rate continues to decline.
Of course, it is not only the putative employee whose cost-benefit calculus needs to be evaluated. It is also the employer’s. Why does the Hyatt Regency seem to ignore the legions of able-bodied people just outside its doors to reach all the way to Ethiopia, through the Byzantine US immigration system, to find employees to staff its hotel? To answer that it is because Ethiopians are better workers begs the question. Why does the Hyatt Regency think they are better workers? Is it because, unless the workers have a green card, they are basically bonded to their sponsoring employer, and are thus better motivated, and thereby exploitable, workers? Under the likeliest visa categories for hotel staff (H-2, temporary workers) if their employer fires them, they must either find another job, which would presumably be quite difficult after having been fired once, or their visa expires and they must leave the country. If the aim of the Ethiopian is to stay in the US as long as possible, perhaps even finding a way to permanent residency, then he is profoundly beholden to his employer. US immigration policy has very nearly recreated slavery in so far as immigrant workers are concerned, which perhaps has something to do with why the locals on the streets have no interest in working, and why the US employer favors immigrants over locals. (Technical note: holders of temporary visas are actually considered non-immigrant visitors to the Department of Homeland Security–used here, “immigrant” means non-native).
I trundled back to the Hyatt to wait out the last hour or so of the wife’s job fair in the hotel lobby. The hotel lobby is actually a huge atrium, twenty two stories high, encircled by balconies on each floor leading to the rooms. The hotel is topped by a flattened dome over the atrium. The buildings in Atlanta, more so than most other cities I’ve visited, seem to be competing with each other to see which gets to be prom queen. The Westin down the street is circular on the outside, topped by a revolving restaurant. But the Hyatt Regency apparently shot itself in the foot with its unique design. According to legend, as told me by my father-in-law who lived in Atlanta for a time, several people have leaped to their deaths from the upper balconies of the atrium. Sitting in the lobby, looking every bit like a tourist, or perhaps a homeless guy as tourists were quite sparse, I was not accosted to leave by the hotel staff, as I am sure would have happened to one of those shirtless black guys in the streets had he wandered in. I had a view of the stream of GSU students coming and going from the job fair, all of them, male and female, dressed in dark suits. After thinking through the possible causes and effects of the employment situation inside and outside of the hotel, it did not surprise me to see that most of the students appeared to be from Asia, either the Indian subcontinent or East Asia. They were probably here on an F-1 student visa, and were probably hoping to stay on a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math, in case you haven’t assimilated the education bureaucracy’s jargon) extension, or get a job offer and an employer willing to sponsor them under H-1B, i.e., the category for people with specialty skills, i.e., for those with a college diploma. Without a job offer, or an extension of their studies, they would have to go home after graduation. And a job offer doesn’t guarantee they would get to stay. H-1B’s are severely limited numerically. But if they did win the lottery, their employer would hold much the same power over their lives as employers hold over employees with visas granted to the ranks of menial workers. If they were fired, they would have to go home, unless they could quickly find another job in their field.
What a mess of things the United States has made of its immigration policy. No wonder structural domestic unemployment has skyrocketed. It appears mainly to be the result of politicians pandering to employers, like politicians have always pandered to capitalists in democratic societies. Add to the mix, their pandering to domestic workers with the more or less wholesale adoption of the labor movement’s platform of worker protections (which, while applying to both US and international workers, does not carry the prospect of deportation for job loss among domestic workers, and instead carries for domestic workers the prospect of being paid without working through generous unemployment benefits, food assistance, etc.), and it’s easy to see why employers favor international workers over their native competitors and domestic workers often just figure working is not worth the trouble. US immigration policy has, in effect, created a class of indentured servants through its visa programs, while making the employment of natives exorbitantly expensive both for them and for prospective employers through its litany of rules and regulations framing the employment contract. It’s amazing any native-born American, or permanent resident, favors working over not working in a manner sufficient to scale the incentives bearing on the employment of international workers.
The very essence of capitalism is the exploitation of resources, including people, for profitable gain. It depends on buying cheap and selling dear, which in the employment context means that it depends on paying workers less for their labor than the revenue generated by it. The less can be paid for the same or better revenue generation, the better. Ethiopian workers aren’t superior to native workers except in one aspect—they are profoundly averse to losing their jobs, so are more readily exploitable. Immigration law and policy allows domestic employers to enjoy many of the same exploitative benefits that their off-shoring cousins have for years enjoyed.
But employment is not a zero-sum game. Every imported Ethiopian does not displace an American worker. Employment is a synergistic game. Every employed person increases aggregate demand by a little bit, so that more employees are needed, which in turn increases aggregate demand a bit more, so that a few more employees are needed, etc. American laborers are only harmed by employed Ethiopians when employing Ethiopians in lieu of Americans is afforded favorable treatment under the law, as is presently the case.
Treating employees as exploitable resources, instead of as treating them as slices of potential demand from which all companies gain sustenance, is self-defeating. Thus is revealed, on the city streets of downtown Atlanta, the free rider problem nesting at the core of free market capitalism—the incentive of the capitalist is to pay workers as little as possible (or, as in this case, to exploit them as much as possible), but meeting the needs and desires of workers, i.e., people, is the very point of capitalism—if all capitalists successfully pay as little as possible for their workers, there will be no demand for the output of their enterprises, as no one except the capitalists themselves will be able to afford what they produce. Those capitalists who can pay less than others without detrimentally impacting aggregate demand for their goods and services enjoy the most short-term profitability. But their strategy fails the Kantian test of what is good and moral. It fails to enhance the overall prospects for human well-being, because if everyone pursued the strategy, disaster (such as the Great Depression) would ensue.
I didn’t again see Esaya later that afternoon when we returned to the garage to retrieve the car. But while waiting in the valet parking line, explaining my experiences in downtown to the wife, I was informed by a local, an attendee at the same job fair and wearing the dark business suit of a banker (it felt really good to be dressed for vacation amongst a bunch of coat and tie clad business slugs), that I would have done better to go down to Buckhead, or Mid-Town—that Atlanta’s downtown is “dead” like Birmingham’s, with only homeless people on the streets. I objected that Birmingham doesn’t really even have a downtown worthy of the name, as it’s only a fifth of the size of Atlanta. But I thought to myself that I got rather more than I hoped with my four-hour sojourn in Atlanta’s downtown; I got a bit of exposure to the street level reality of social and economic affairs in the downtown of a major American city–something that I would certainly have missed had I spent my visit in what sounded like the hipster section of the city. I’ve seen so many hip, trendy places, populated by so many urban sophisticates living so far from the margins of existence, people who believe themselves exceptional but who are actually desperately average and mainstream, that it was nice to get a little gritty, to witness first-hand the juxtaposition of glittering wealth and grinding poverty that you see in Atlanta’s downtown, even if I felt a bit vulnerable in the exercise. And seeing the ground level effects afforded me a glimpse at their cause, yielding an idea for their solution.
The solution to the problem of native workers, unemployed but otherwise able, seems so clear to me that it feels superfluous to discuss: treat all similarly situated putative employees the same. Discard the Byzantine maze of immigration law and policy which was crafted to allow employers the same sort of exploitative advantage domestically that they can achieve in labor markets internationally. There should be no indentured servitude in the United States. Immigration policy should be very simple. Allow as many people in the country as can be reasonably be assimilated, and when they arrive, treat them much the same as if their family came over on the Mayflower. I would go so far as allowing them to vote within a year or so of arrival. Too much government meddling in the nexus between immigration and the employment relationship has utterly queered the domestic labor market. The answer is less government meddling. Eliminate the government-sanctioned differences in treatment between domestic and international workers so that they all compete to sell their labor on a level playing field.
The American labor movement has done a grave disservice to workers in the United States (and ironically, to itself) in its opposition to expanded immigration. It should be promoting the assimilation of new workers (and actively recruiting them to union membership when they arrive), but on equal terms in the employment relationship as their American counterparts. The labor movement, as relatively weak as it is now, is still the only voice American workers have against the exploitative impulses of capitalists. The labor movement should be striving to remove the agency of bestowing immigration favors on international workers from the hands of capitalists. Remove the ability of capitalists to bestow US residency, if only temporarily, on international workers, and the labor market will clear. More people will find work. And the American labor movement just might be revivified in such a manner that capitalists don’t destroy the economic system again in a mad dash to exploit cheap labor.
So, Atlanta, that great and sprawling city to the east, proved a fruitful trip. Now, if I can only find a way to occasionally get a gratuity for myself from the woman for whom I porter bags and drive. She slept the whole way back while I composed this essay in my head. She didn’t even need me droning on about what I saw and what it meant to put her to sleep, though that surely would have sufficed. I hope you didn’t feel the same.